May a non-Catholic serve as a godparent for a Catholic baptism? May a Catholic be the best man at a non-Catholic wedding? May someone from an Eastern Orthodox church receive communion at a Roman Catholic mass? May a Catholic receive communion at a non-Catholic church?

These and other questions that Catholics often face due to their family, friendships, business and other social relationships are answered in the Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism.

The directory, published by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in 1993, updated and expanded the information previously offered in two postconciliar documents: A Directory for the Application of the Second Vatican Council's Decisions on Ecumenism (1967) and its second part, subtitled Ecumenism in Higher Education (1970).

Through the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) the Catholic Church entered a time of self-reflection, probing its identity more deeply and refreshing its dialogue with the world. The fruits of the Councilís labor became immediately evident in the church's worship, but its complete goals included a revision of church law, catechism, and service.

Among the major areas the council pursued was ecumenism. Other churches and ecclesial communities had already entered the arena. The World Council of Churches had formed and some church bodies were already merging. Formerly, the ecumenical strategy of the Catholic Church seemed to have two goals: the conversion of Protestants and an end to the Orthodox schism. The council fathers took a broader look at the ecumenical picture, striking a balance between their convictions already noted in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen gentium, 8) that the church of Christ "subsists in the Catholic Church" and that "many elements of sanctification and truth are found outside its visible confines." In doing so, they summoned a deep respect for the personal faith of all. The resulting Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis redintegratio, November 21, 1964) catapulted the Catholic Church into the ecumenical movement. Its opening words called the restoration of unity one of the principal concerns of the council, and it criticized division among churches as contrary to the will of Christ and a scandal to the world.

The Decree on Ecumenism still captures the heady enthusiasm of the Second Vatican Council. It launched a sweeping agenda for the church by calling for not just the promotion but also the practice of ecumenism. It recognized the distinct concerns issuing from relationships with the Eastern and Western churches separated from the Roman See. By its nature, the document towered with vision, while it abstained from specifics.

The specific working out of the Decree on Ecumenism fell to postconciliar work. The Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity accepted the responsibility and set about developing its "Directory for the Application of the Second Vatican Council's Decisions on Ecumenism," published, as indicated above, in two parts in 1967 and 1970.

The first part of the directory (1967) dealt with several practical concerns. These included the creation of diocesan and regional ecumenical commissions, necessary for working out the council's ideals. It also affirmed the validity of baptism administered by ministers of other churches and ecclesial communities. It promoted sharing among churches where possible.

The second part (1970) laid more groundwork. It presented the general principles which undergird ecumenism and then worked out particular norms for ecumenical formation and collaboration, especially in regard to schools and institutions.

That two-part directory served the church well. However, other concurrent developments began to influence ecumenical progress. Most significantly, the Code of Canon Law for the Roman Catholic Church was revised in 1983 and the Code of Oriental Canon Law was published in 1990. It also became evident that the directory had not adequately treated topics like marriages between Catholics and other Christians. A more coherent integration of all this material, it seemed, would better serve the cause of and commitment to ecumenism.

Consequently, in 1985, speaking on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the founding of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, Pope John Paul II called for the updating of the present ecumenical directory. The secretariat once again assumed the task, and thus began a long process of development and consultation for the generation of the revised document. Before its completion, the directory passed through several committees, received reactions from Episcopal conferences around the world, underwent further refinements with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and finally won the approval of Pope John Paul II. Dated March 25, 1993, the Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism was promulgated under the auspices of the renamed Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

The finished document contains five sections. It opens with a chapter on the search for Christian unity -- new theological material rooted in the Second Vatican Council's Decree on Ecumenism and Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. Then it treats the organization of the Catholic Church in its service to Christian unity, calling for internal commissions and international cooperation. The third section concerns ecumenical formation in the Catholic Church, an attempt to widen participation in the ecumenical movement. The fourth gathers the practical matters of communion of life and spiritual activity among the baptized. The final section calls for collaboration, dialogue, and common witness to ecumenism.

The excerpt included in this volume of The Liturgy Documents: A Parish Resource draws from the fourth and fifth sections of the directory (92-160; 183-187). There are treated the specific matters that pertain to liturgical preparation and prayer among the Christian churches and ecclesial communities. The first and lengthier part of the excerpt considers prayer and the sacraments. Special consideration goes to baptism and marriage, but in a middle section entitled "Sharing Spiritual Activities and Resources," one finds other substantial concerns: principles for prayer in common, sharing in nonsacramental liturgical worship, and sharing in the sacramental life of the church, especially the Eucharist, but also penance and anointing. The shorter, second part of the excerpt concerns the development of common scriptural and liturgical texts.

The sacrament of baptism prompts several concerns, including conditions for its validity and the role of godparents. Regarding validity, the directory makes an assumption in favor of the validity of baptisms in which the minister uses the proper matter and form and has the same intention as the church. This affirmation conceals a change in baptismal practice since the Second Vatican Council. Formerly, the baptism of other Christians was generally considered doubtful; if other Christians desired acceptance into the Catholic church, the priest usually administered a conditional baptism. In fact, so common was this circumstance that the formula for conditional baptisms appeared in the Roman Ritual together with the standard one for hundreds of years. Now the baptisms of other Christians in the main churches and ecclesial communities is presumed to be valid. If any of them desire the full communion of the Catholic Church, they celebrate the rite of reception; the priest who receives them also confirms them. If a conditional baptism must be performed, it is to happen in private (93-95; 99-100).

The question of god parenting across denominational lines has vexed many a Catholic. The directory explains that baptisms happen within a single ecclesial context. Only a person within that church or ecclesial community may function as a godparent, but other baptized Christians may serve as witnesses together with the godparent. The prescription advises Catholic parents to seek a Catholic godparent, even if they wish to include a non-Catholic witness; it also suggests that Catholics may serve as witnesses for the baptisms in other church communities if the host church provides a godparent (98).

In sharing spiritual activities and resources the directory encourages Catholics to make full use of what they share in common with others. Many nonsacramental occasions may draw churches together for prayer; the funeral for a non-Catholic may even happen in a Catholic church (102-121). Catholics may even share buildings and religious objects with non-Catholics, as long as each community's faith is respected. Non-Catholic children in Catholic schools may have access to their own ministers (137-142).

The question of sharing other sacraments requires much more nuance, and the possibilities depend first on whether the non-Catholic individual comes from the churches of the east or west.

The Catholic Church recognizes the sacraments in all eastern churches; it extends its willingness to share the sacraments with them, but not all eastern churches are able to extend the same invitation back (122-128).

The sharing of Eucharist, penance, and anointing with ecclesial communities from the Reformation of the sixteenth century is more difficult. For Catholics, the Eucharist is a sign of ecclesial communion, which excludes their ordinary participation. However, there are occasions when the sharing of these sacraments "may be permitted or even commended." The directory offers four conditions: "that the person be unable to have recourse for the sacrament desired to a minister of his or her own church or ecclesial community, ask for the sacrament of his or her own initiative, manifest Catholic faith in this sacrament and be properly disposed" (131). Catholics, however, under similar circumstances, may only receive from those churches whose sacraments are considered valid. Hence, the invitation does not work both ways, even in these extraordinary circumstances.

The sense of "communion" at sacramental worship extends also to certain ministries: The reader and homilist at a Eucharist should be Catholics. Outside of Eucharist they need not be. Those who witness marriages as best man, maid of honor, or other member of the wedding party need not be from the same church as the bride or groom, whether the wedding takes place in a Catholic church or elsewhere (129-136).

Marriages between Catholics and non-Catholics pose pastoral concerns. Even before marriage, couples should discuss the exercise of their faith as part of parochial preparation for marriage. One should be firm in one's own faith and learn about the faith of the partner; still, accepting the partner's faith should not invite indifference about one's own. The pastors of each partner should collaborate before the wedding. The couple is exhorted to pray together (143-149).

Of primary concern in marriage is the faith of the children. The Catholic party is asked to do all in his or her power to raise the children in the Catholic faith, beginning with baptism. The non-Catholic party is to be informed, but is not asked to assent or sign anything. Sometimes the Catholic party cannot fulfill his or her intentions. If he or she wishes to share the Catholic faith with the children but fails in efforts to do so due to the religious freedom and conscience of the other parent, he or she incurs no canonical censure (150-151).

The ceremony should affirm the significance of the sacrament. Marriages between Catholics and Orthodox should stress what the faiths share in common. A Catholic who wishes to marry a non-Catholic is still bound by the canonical form of marriage, but may obtain a dispensation for various reasons, including "the maintaining of family harmony, obtaining parental consent to the marriage, the recognition of the particular religious commitment of the non-Catholic partner or his/her blood relationship with a minister of another church or ecclesial community." Still, one public ceremony is required; a couple may not give consent twice. The Catholic minister may join or be joined by the minister of another community at the wedding; the visiting minister may recite a prayer, proclaim a reading, offer an exhortation, or give a blessing. The directory states that the wedding between a Catholic and a person from another church or ecclesial community will ordinarily not take place within the context of a Eucharist. If the non-Catholic desires communion at the wedding, the norms in #131 still apply within the context of the wedding (152-160). The bishops' conference of South Africa notably clarified these permissions after the directory was published.

The excerpt closes with two parts of the closing section: common bible work and common liturgical texts. Since the directory calls on Christians to seek occasions for common prayer, it also encourages the development of biblical and liturgical texts which many ecclesial communities might hold in common (183-187).

In parts of the world where Catholics are continually drawn into conversation and commerce with those of other beliefs, they find the experience both rich and challenging. The Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism aims to help the average Catholic enter that world strong in faith yet committed to the cause of ecumenism.

This article first appeared in The Liturgy Documents Volume Two: A Parish Resource. Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1999.

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